The Kite Runner

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The Kite Runner is being marketed as not just the first novel by its author, Khaled Hosseini, a medical doctor, but the first novel of its kind: an Afghan novel written in English. That, however, is the least of the achievements of this accomplished if not quite flawless debut work which has been hailed as “a haunting morality tale” and “a stirring tale of loyalty and betrayal.” Despite being occasionally melodramatic and overly symmetrical, The Kite Runner is a modestly told, quietly ambitious, story of its narrator- protagonist’s journey from his rather comfortable life in Kabul in the 1970’s to his and his father’s fleeing the country in 1981 and beginning life anew as struggling immigrants in Fremont, California, and, following marriage and the publication of his own first novel, his fateful return to Taliban-run Afghanistan in 2001, where he will atone for a past wrong.

The story begins where Arundhati Roy’s 1997 Booker Prize-wining novel, The God of Small Things, ends: with a betrayal. Amir has a rather difficult relationship with his father, a successful businessman and social progressive, an imposing man who builds an orphanage but who finds his son weak. Amir is weak, and not just physically in a patriarchal culture that prizes manly competition. His weakness takes a terrifying turn in his dealings with Hassan, the devoted servant who is also his friend. Opposites in certain ways (Amir is a privileged Pastun, Hassan one of the despised minority Hazaras), they are virtually identical in others, most obviously in age and in having nursed at the same breast (following the death of Amir’s mother and the disappearance of Hassan’s).

Hosseini successfully sketches not just his characters and their complex social situation, but more importantly the psycho-pathology of their relationship: the petty cruelties that privilege invites, the risk of these escalating into betrayals with far-reaching consequences, and the way loving devotion can become masochistic submission. Hosseini proves especially adept in placing Amir’s story in the larger Afghan context and in making each an allegory of the other. And while his taking his story just past September 11, 2001, seems forced, more an editorial decision than an authorial choice, subsequent events make The Kite Runner not only more timely but more necessary as American interest shifts from Afghanistan to Iraq.

Review Sources

Kirkus Reviews 71, no. 9 (May 1, 2003): 630.

Library Journal 128, no. 19 (November 15, 2003): 114.

Los Angeles Times, July 8, 2003, p. E6.

The New York Times Book Review, August 3, 2003, p. 4.

People 60, no. 2 (July 14, 2003): 47.

Publishers Weekly 250, no.19 (May 12, 2003): 43.

San Francisco Chronicle, June 8, 2003, p. M1.

The Times Literary Supplement, October 10, 2003, p. 25.

USA Today, May 22, 2003, p. D6.

The Washington Post Book World, July 6, 2003, p. 3.


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Identity and Self-Discovery

Throughout the novel, the protagonist struggles to find his true purpose and to forge an identity through noble actions. Amir's failure to stand by his friend at a crucial moment shapes this defining conflict. His endeavor to overcome his own weaknesses appears in his fear of Assef, his hesitation to enter a war-torn country ruled by the repressive Taliban, and even his carsickness while driving with Farid into Afghanistan. Late in the novel, Amir discovers his father's lifelong deception about his half brother Hassan, a revelation that leads to a deeper understanding of who his father was and how he and his father had both betrayed the people who were loyal to them.

Family, Fathers, and Fatherhood

In this novel in which family relationships play a great part, mothers are strikingly absent. Although Soraya is a loving mother to Sohrab, Amir and Hassan grow up without their mothers. Meanwhile, the tension of father-son relationships is exemplified by Baba's treatment of his sons, Amir and Hassan. While Baba is disappointed in Amir's bookish, introverted personality, to protect his social standing, he does not publicly acknowledge his illegitimate son Hassan whose mother is a Hazara. Likewise, General Taheri is a traditional, highly critical father who chafes at his grown daughter's sometimes rebellious attitudes. The theme re-emerges in the marriage of Amir and Soraya, who try unsuccessfully to start a family of their own. Their adoption of the troubled and parentless Sohrab at the end of the novel marks an attempt to recreate a complete family based on relationships of love and honesty.

Journey and Quest

A novel of immigration and political unrest, The Kite Runner is punctuated by Amir's departure from Afghanistan as a teenager and his return to his war-ravaged home country as an adult. At the same time, it is a novel of symbolic quest. Amir makes great sacrifices to pursue his quest to atone for past sins by rescuing his half nephew. Symbolized by the bleeding fingers of kite-fighters who cut their competitors'kites out of the sky with string embedded with glass, sacrifice is an important theme of the novel. Near the beginning of the novel, Amir willingly cut his fingers to impress his father with a kite-fighting victory; at the end he cuts his fingers flying a kite to revive his spiritually wounded nephew from a profound depression. Whereas the young Amir compares Hassan's resignation to his attackers'assault to the resignation of a sacrificed animal, by the end of the novel, Amir is prepared to sacrifice much in order to save Hassan's son from a similar fate.

Heritage and Ancestry

Before leaving Afghanistan, Baba fills a snuff box with soil from his homeland. As refugees in the United States, Baba and Amir live in an Afghan immigrant community in the San Francisco Bay Area. Even though much of the action takes place in the United States, most of the characters there are Afghan, emphasizing how Amir and Baba thrive in and contribute to an immigrant community that reminds them of home. Although Baba dies without ever seeing his home country again, Amir maintains his ties to the Afghan community in Northern California, partly through his wife's family. Descriptions of Amir and Soraya's courtship and Baba's funeral exemplify such ties to traditional cultural values. The reader is treated to detailed accounts of the khastegari tradition in which the groom's father requests permission of the prospective bride's father, and the elaborate traditional ceremony in which Amir and Soraya are married. Although Amir first views living in the United States as a way to forget a painful past, he maintains and revives his ties to Afghan culture and religion. He returns to his country of birth and, after his nephew attempts suicide, re-discovers Islam as a source of strength. The narration and dialogue welcome

the reader into this ethnic Pashtun and Afghan national identity through running translations of frequently spoken or culturally significant phrases and concepts.

Assimilation and Acculturation

From the early twentieth century to contemporary times, new arrivals to the United States have lived and worked in their new homeland, attempting to lead better lives and simultaneously struggling to adjust to a culture that may or may not accept their traditions. When Amir and Baba arrive in Fremont, California, they, too, must start new lives. While Baba works at a humble job in a service station, Amir attends school, graduating from high school at the age of twenty. While Baba (like General Taheri, a man of his generation) dreams of returning to Afghanistan in better times, Amir who has spent much of his teenage years in the United States, adjusts more readily to his new country. For Amir, as for many in the literature of the American immigrant experience, the United States represents a space for new beginnings and a way to erase a dark, violent past. For Baba, the transition is more difficult, and his new life presents a painful contrast with his former position of power and prestige in Kabul.

Political Power/Abuse of Power

The events of the novel occur against the backdrop of political change, culminating in the rise of the tyrannical Taliban government in contemporary Afghanistan. Assef, Hassan's rapist and the bully who becomes a high-ranking Taliban official, embodies the consequences of the abuse of power for power's sake and the violence and repression of the Taliban regime. Assef is a sociopath who thrives in an atmosphere of chaos and subjugation. Interpersonal violence leads to the split between Amir and Hassan; on a national scale, the abuse of power by the Soviet-backed Communist regime in Afghanistan forces Baba and Amir to go into exile. The abuse of political and social power also appears in frequent references to the Hazara people, who are second-class citizens in the quasi-caste system of Afghanistan. At the beginning of the novel, Hazara characters such as Hassan's father Ali suffer public humiliation for their appearance. When General Taheri demands an explanation for Amir and Soraya's adoption of a Sohrab, "a Hazara boy," he echoes the discrimination against this entire ethnic minority. Likewise, he gives voice to this attitude when he attacks Amir for having a Hazara boy for a playmate. In a sense, even Baba condones systematic discrimination against Hazara people by refusing to acknowledge his son with a Hazara woman, Sanaubar.

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Style, Form, and Literary Elements